Educating your athletes about Sleep Hygiene
Sleep is the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting – Matthew Walker
Sleep allows your body to rest and recover and continually renew itself each day in a far more effective way than anything else. Simply put – if you are not well rested, you cannot consistently perform at your best. In today’s constantly ‘switched on’ world it is becoming increasingly harder for athletes to do the one thing that might just make the biggest difference to their performance. This CDC chart from data collected in 2014 shows the prevalence of < 7 hours sleep in the US. It is a pattern that is familiar across the globe and it is likely that this has deteriorated over the last number of years.
Quality sleep is one of the foundation blocks of an athlete’s routine. 7-9 hours sleep per night is considered optimal but athletes who are training and competing on a regular basis should aim for more. A comprehensive review of sleep research was carried out in 2019. It researched sleep related articles from 1980 through to 2018 with a focus on studies involving athletes. 40 relevant studies were reviewed which included 18 related to sleep deprivation, 11 related to sleep extension, 2 related to circadian effects and 9 related to jet lag. They summarized the effects of sleep deprivation and sleep extension from this research as outlined in the following sections.
Elite athletes are known to get less total sleep than non-athletes and a reduction in sleep quality is also common. Athletes can have sleep issues and develop unfavorable sleep hygiene habits due to a number of reasons including:-
- Rigorous and strict training schedules
- Travel obligations
- Time zone changes and jet lag
- Tendency to play down the importance of sleep
- Use of smart phones and electronic devices
- Stress and anxiety
Sleep deprivation has been shown to have negative effects on the following:-
- Reaction time
- Submaximal strength
- Decision making
- Mood and vigor
Increasing sleep duration among people who are sleep deprived has been shown to improve:-
- Reaction times
- Fatigue and Vigor
- Sprint times
- Tennis serve accuracy
- Increased kick strokes, swim turns and reaction times in swimming
- Increased free throws and 3-point accuracy in basketball
Circadian Rhythm and your Body Clock
Your internal body clock or circadian rhythm is an important element to consider to optimize sleep duration and quality. In The impact of circadian misalignment on athletic performance in professional football player the authors reviewed 40 years of evening and daytime professional football games between West and East coast US teams. The results strongly favored the West Coast teams during evening games against East Coast teams. For similar day time games, there was no such advantage. In a nutshell professional football players playing close to their circadian peak in performance demonstrated a significant advantage over those who were playing at other times. For example, East Coast athletes playing a West Coast game at night might be playing until 2am in the morning (their home time). Similar affects have also been seen in athletes who have early morning sessions or late evening training / games as well as in athletes who suffer from social jet lag which is discussed in more detail below.
Jet lag results from rapid transmeridian travel where time zones are crossed, such as east-to-west or west-to-east airplane travel. The severity increases with the increasing number of time zones crossed – travelling over three time zones almost invariably leads to jet lag. Jet lag symptoms occur while the body clock tries to adapt
The body clock is capable of adjusting to new conditions but has evolved to adapt slowly in line with the changing of our seasons. The abrupt changes caused by airplane travel across several time zones is not something that has a quick fix. Athletes are often required to travel long distances for competitions and are often expected to perform to their best ability without having had time to readjust to their new environment. Jet lag affects different people in different ways but in general the main symptoms are poor sleep, tiredness during the day, reduced appetite and a reduced performance. The more time zones you cross, the longer it takes for your body to adjust.
Mitigating the effects of jet lag
Individual athletes can benefit from understanding the effects that jet lag can have on their performance and how to help mitigate its effect. The German word ‘Zeitgebers’ which literally translates as ‘time-givers’ is used to refer to external cues that help resynchronize our body clocks. The most important one is daylight, but others include food, exercise, sleep and pharmacological treatments. The aforementioned research outlines some potential strategies that athletes and teams can adopt in order to help their bodies adjust and minimize the effects of jet lag.
Prior to travel – Education and Pre-adjustment
Information on jet lag should be provided to athletes as they can have a tendency to dismiss it. Educating can help them recognize the symptoms and effects on their performance and adjust their training accordingly. Pre-adjustment means gradually shifting your sleep and eating schedule by 30-60 mins a day towards the destination time for a few days before travel and avoiding daylight at key times.
During travel – Minimize flight effects
Hydrating by drinking plenty of non-alcoholic drinks can help minimize the de-hydrating effects of flying. Getting up and stretching regularly can help avoid muscle stiffness.
On arrival – Light
Light exposure during the time that corresponds with the early part of the evening / night of your home time can help kickstart adjustment by causing a phase delay that is required to reset the body clock following westward travel. Exposure to light in the second half of the night and early morning (home time) will cause an advance in the circadian phase that is required for adjustment for eastward travel.
On arrival – Exercise
Avoiding heavy training in the first few days after a long flight when jet lag is at its worst is preferable. This often cannot be avoided as athletes need to train or compete within the schedules they have been given. Where possible, exercise should take place during recommended light exposure periods.
On arrival – Food
Changing meal times to local time, even though you may not feel hungry, is beneficial to help adjustment to your new time zone.
Social Jet Lag
Social jetlag is the name given to the condition in which sleep patterns vary widely between workdays and weekends or holidays, with sleep deprivation on weekdays being compensated for by a lie-in on weekends. This may severely confuse and disrupt the natural circadian rhythms of the body – Dr. Liji Thomas, MD
The term ‘Social Jet Lag’ was coined by Till Roennenberg, Professor of Chronobiology at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. It occurs when we go to bed later and wake up later at the weekend compared to weekdays. How much social jetlag you experience is down to the how far apart these two sleep/wake cycles are. It has been compared to travelling to a different time zone at the start of the week and only coming back to local time at the weekend. It is a common problem, especially in teenagers and young adults who tend to go to bed late and get up late when they don’t have something scheduled. Getting up early on a Monday morning for school or college can leave them tired and fatigued similar to feeling ‘jet-lagged’. This confuses our body clock and can lead to fatigue, difficulties concentrating, and other issues. Basically, your sleep routines are out of sync. The issue tends to be more pronounced in ‘night owls’ – someone who usually stays up late and may feel most awake in the evening. Sleep-time differences of more than one hour between training days and days off in elite athletes is considered a sign of social jet lag.
Sleep Hygiene Strategies
Getting enough sleep just doesn’t happen overnight. If you have bad habits regarding sleep hygiene you need to work on them and commit to change. Some recommendations to improve your sleep include:-
- Avoid stimulants at least 6 hours before bedtime
- Switch off devices
- Avoid obsessive clock watching
- Avoid excessive food and liquid late at night
- Use beds for sleep – if you cannot sleep get out of bed for a while
- Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and comfortable
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule
- Avoid sleep naps if you are having trouble falling asleep at night
- Seek out bright light in the morning but avoid in the evening
The good news is that you can improve your sleep habits by adhering to regular routines and adopting some simple lifestyle changes. Improving your athletic performance may be as simple as getting more shut-eye.
Practice does not make perfect. It is practice, followed by a night of sleep, that leads to perfection ― Matthew Walker
An athlete who is not sleeping and is suffering from chronic stress is more likely to burnout and dropout than perform their best on the sports field. Early intervention identifying issues and educating athletes on how lifestyle stressors can affect their performance can be the difference between winning and losing. Metrifit promotes authentic conversations and learning regarding sleep, stress, nutrition and other key factors that can prove immeasurable to both coaches and athletes. Having ‘data’ to back up your instincts or help you to recognize patterns and triggers is invaluable. Educating and empowering athletes to improve their lifestyle can pay huge dividends on the playing field. Metrifit’s new Lifestyle Profiling is akin to a ‘health check’ for your team. It provides invaluable insight into the well-being of your team with clear visuals that help you make informed decisions to prepare your athletes for optimal performance.
To find out more about our Metrifit Ready to Perform product or our new lifestyle profiling contact us at or click on ‘Request Demo’ below.
Robert Karlsson, Professional Golfer
Athletic Development Coach, MSc ASCC
Millfield School, UK
Strength and Conditioning Coach at DCU Sport and with Dublin Minor GAA
Emma Hawke, PhD Exercise Physiology
Coach - Sweden Climbing, Olympic Offensive - Female Coach Swedish Olympic Committee, Senior Lecturer - Coach education programme (Sweden)
Team Manager and Athlete Support Services Coordinator at Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby
Head Coach, Irish Hockey
Lincoln University Athletic Performance Manager
Head Coach, Women's Soccer at Regis University
Director of Strength & Conditioning and Head Strength Coach Men’s basketball, University of Wisconsin
Quinnipiac University, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach
Kildare Senior Football Manager
Edgar K. Tham
Founder and Chief Sport & Performance Psychologist, SportPsych Consulting (Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines)
Head Basketball Coach, Carmel High School
Head Physiotherapist, Cornish Pirates Rugby Club
Head Volley Ball Coach, Southern Illinois University
NISUS Fitness, S&C Coach Clare Senior Hurling, Horse Sport Ireland and Limerick Senior Hurling
Tino Fusco, B.Sc. ChPC
Head Coach, Women's Soccer, Mount Royal University (Canada)
CEO, Shift Performance, Miami
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CEO Achieve Total Performance Pty Ltd
Sports Scientist, Kildare Football, PhD Sports Science Researcher
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Head Athletic Trainer, Colorado School of Mines
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University of Wisconsin
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Football Association of Ireland
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